In her new documentary Wintopia, Mira Burt-Wintonick grapples with the death of a father who was absent for much of her life. The in-demand documentarian was often abroad, hitting the international film-festival circuit and shooting footage for a never-finished feature about Utopia.
So it was with bittersweet irony that, after Peter Wintonick’s death in 2013, his daughter found herself spending more time with him than she ever did when he was alive. That’s because, driven to fulfill his last wish for a final film about his life and work, she set about exploring the 300-odd tapes of footage he had stored away in boxes marked “Utopia”.
“It was very confusing and intense,” she says from home in Montreal about watching the film that helped form the NFB-EyeSteelFilm coproduced Wintopia, which opens the now-online DOXA Festival here. “I would have hours and hours of footage of him alive, so it was almost like spending every day with him, when I hadn’t spent much time with him at all for years.. I was so grateful for them.
“I do feel a lot closer to him now,” she adds. “I spent so much time in the past few years just imagining what he was thinking as he was shooting, watching his films and trying to figure out what his choices meant—connecting all these dots to who he was.”
Wintonick, a key player in Canada’s strong documentary history and the codirector of 1992’s Manufacturing Consent, had gone to the far corners of the world to seek out his elusive Utopia. The destinations included the Spanish windmill region of Don Quixote; Ireland’s oratory of St. Brendan, patron saint of travellers; and throughout Australia, where the opening scene finds Wintonick, almost Chaplin-esque, struggling to contain a map that’s flapping in the wind.
A recurring image in the film is a dreamlike view of the strand that links England's Holy Island of Lindisfarne with the mainland. Driving up to it at sunset, he settles his camera on the low road sinking in the tide that covers it each day. Like so much of Wintopia, it’s at once poetic, melancholy, and mysterious.
“It says so much about my dad,” says Burt-Wintonick, whose father was well-connected with the film scene here. “I don’t know the details, but I can imagine him just showing up there without checking the tide tables—he was a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. It [the image] is a stand-in for this barrier that might stand between us and Utopia—the hesitation of ‘Is it worth the risk to cross? Is it safe to cross and what are we going to risk to get to the other side? Are we going to try to turn back?’ ”
At first, Burt-Wintonick attempted to make a feature the way Wintonick might have crafted it, narrating his footage herself. But it didn’t feel right, and she took a break from the intense project for two years.
“It took a while to take it on as my own film and to let go of that pressure of what his dying wish was,” explains Burt-Wintonick, who has spent most of her career as a radio producer (working on projects like CBC’s WireTap). “It became clear it would have been impossible to make that film without him. Letting go of that was a really big shift in my thinking.”
Burt-Wintonick started reaching out to her father’s vast network of colleagues and friends. Directors who had worked with him, including Vancouver’s Nettie Wild, reveal in Wintopia that her father talked about her and her mother, Christine, constantly while away from them. Those accounts and other footage show Wintonick knew in his heart that his real Utopia lay at home with his family—but, like the shore of that Irish island, he was not quite able to get there.
That reflection on his career and his life plays out in a lyrical and deeply personal way, as the director works through the enigma of her father.
“I feel it did provide a lot of resolution,” Burt-Wintonick offers thoughtfully. “I knew he was an important filmmaker, but making the film made me realize when he was away from home it wasn’t just this frivolous quest. Even though there was this restlessness from the films he made and the people he mentored, he was just trying to make the world better for people who are struggling. He really did believe documentaries were a way forward in making the world a better place.”
For many, those kinds of reflections in Wintopia—about the meaning of life, about the passage of time, and about slowing down to find happiness close to home—will feel especially important during these pandemic times.
“The film is about Utopia on some level—Utopia and grief,” agrees Burt-Wintonick, “so it does feel very relevant right now.”